Good Christmas Morning,
As I sit in Lydia’s room, my brain flashes memory after memory of Christmases past through the movie screen inside my head. My earliest memories of Christmas are always at my grandmother’s house in Sioux City, IA where I grew up. My grandmother had a sort of an old farm house out at what would have been the edge of town at that time with a couple of acres of land and a barn for her garage (ironic that I just considered the parallel for the first time). Her home was not spacious, but it was welcoming and her care and love made that place even more so a haven of comfort and safety. It was her care and love that has influenced my life more than I could have ever imagined. She fought her own demons and she was a widow at 45 years old. I have not really considered that carefully before I began writing this blog. While I am well aware of our lengthening life span, even in the late 1950s to be a widow in your forties would have been the exception and certainly traumatic. As I noted in my last blog, losing a person before what is considered a full life has to always be a shock and exceptionally difficult.
Yet, and while I remember many things from that time in my life because I was actually living with them at this point, I do not remember my grandfather’s passing. I do remember his being ill and in a bed, but I do not remember his death. I also do not remember any of my grandmother’s struggle in the immediate years that followed. What I remember is sitting in a mixing bowl and being pushed around the bakery they had owned together. What I remember is sitting on the bakery table and rolling out pie dough with my own little rolling pin. What I remember is a morning breakfast of a soft poached egg, a half of grapefruit, and a piece of toast made of the best bread in the world. I remember smiles, hugs, and love that was shown without measure, and that was just the everyday thing. I remember birthdays that had the most amazing birthday cakes in the world (she was a cake decorator). I remember sitting in her station wagon and yes, I remember that she smoked cigarettes. In fact, just a week or so ago I got in someone’s truck and the smell of smoking in the car brought me back to that salmon-colored Studebaker. In, fact, I told him so. My Grandmother Louise, more than perhaps any other person in the world modeled what it meant to love and care for the other. Her willingness to give was apparent each day as she allowed us to be around in the bakery as small children, probably under foot, but all her workers were like our aunts and uncles. I remember playing with the adding machine for hours on end. The amount of adding machine tape I wasted could probably have filled a corner of a landfill. I would punch numbers and pull that handle for hours and I never grew tired of it either. Another thing I never grew tired of was the amazing items to eat. It is a wonder I was not the fattest little toad on earth. As I grew, the times I got to spend at her house, usually beginning on this day and completing the Christmas break, were the most precious times of my childhood. Her care and love for my sister and me was so readily apparent in everything she did.
As I got older and I worked in the bakery, I am sure she lost money on me. While I worked hard, I ate more than my fair share of bakery items. As I have noted in other blogs, she insisted that we be polite and that we always treat the other person with respect. She would tell me you cannot both love someone and disrespect them. I think I took that lesson to heart more than any other she might have offered. I think that is why I have such an issue yet today with disrespect, either received or when I might engage in it. I will admit, I am not perfect in this area, but it is something I do try to do. Sometimes my smart mouth and wicked turn-of-a-phrase can get me in trouble. What I also remember about my grandmother was the elegance and beauty that was such a central part of her. She was always, even when in the house, in a dress or skirt, and even if it was gingham or calico, she was elegant. Her smile radiated warmth and her care of those around her was readily apparent. She and her older sister, my Great-aunt Helen, together could make anyone feel appreciated and happy.
When she passed away, I think that was the hardest I had ever cried in my life. She was not very old (64). I look at that very differently now as I am approaching that decade. If there is a person, up to now, that I hoped might be proud of the person I have become, it would be her. As I think of various things, I am astounded at the parallels I see between Lydia and Louise. Perhaps I should not find it ironic that Lydia’s middle name is Louise. They both had a sense of decorum and elegance that few women I have met ever have. They both were interested in the world around them and paid attention to both the big picture and the little details all at the same time. People who can do both are a rare breed and that certainly describes both of them. They were both frugal, and yet incredibly giving. My grandmother pulled out all the stops at Christmas and she was always willing to help a person who needed something. Most people have no idea the number of ways Lydia gave to other people. Because of her reclusive nature and her accent, many found her unapproachable, and I must admit she did little to change their perceptions, but she was an amazingly kind person. Once her neighbor was struggling in a significant way and Lydia came to her rescue. Because of Lydia’s generosity, her neighbor kept her house.
It is now 9:30 Christmas evening and Lydia seems to hang on by a thread at moments and then with more tenacity at others; it might even be a frayed thread, but she clings to it with all her might. She has had visitors the last three days, and earlier this evening she did tell one of the caregivers that it was George. I am hoping that is the case and that George can assure her that life beyond here is not something of which she should be afraid. I have often said she was here out of fear. I noted that in an earlier blog, but I think I have witnessed it first hand in the last days. When she has clung to my hand or anyone’s hand the strength with which she held on was phenomenal. The other event, the one of tragic nature, of which I wrote earlier has really taught some things. I have been corresponding with Lydia’s doctor and he and I have had the most amazing conversations about the spiritual manifestations of our humanity, both in the here and now and in the beyond. What he shared with me in the past day was amazing. and it connects directly to the idea that God, at least the God in whom I believe, does not wish for us to fear our physical death, nor does God want those of us left behind to grieve or worry about our loved ones who have passed before us. I am well aware that often such conversations can become maudlin, if you will, and I do not wish to engage in anything of the sort, but the question of what is on the other side is such a significant one for so many. In spite of everything, I guess I do not worry about it, at least for myself. When I was a parish pastor, I remember saying I did not have to worry about the what ifs on the other side, but rather I needed to be faithful in the here and now. I think I still try to live my life in that manner.
It is now December 26th and while I sit in Lydia’s room the best way to describe the affect is that it is peaceful. She sleeps most of the time and somehow she hangs on. She opens her eyes at times and there are moments she seems distant and then there are other moments when she is perfectly lucid. She continues to show us that she is incredibly strong and she is in charge of what she will and will not do. No one, including her doctor expected she would hang on this long. I now believe she is waiting for me to leave versus waiting for me to be here. I think she did want me here to tell me she loved me and for me to spend the Christmas holiday with her. I think the manner in which we choose to leave the world, when something is not accidental, is more in our control than we often imagine. I think I had at least an inkling of that before recently. Then I read a book this past year that was a gift from my friend and brother, Jose. Now I have watched Lydia over this past week. I have watched her interact with people I cannot see, but she can certainly see them. She has at times seemed to be in conversation with him, her, or them; she has at times seemed to push or shoo them away. At this moment, she is actually up and out of bed for the first time in 6 days and Carissa and Mindy are washing her up. She managed that well and now she is resting comfortably. She actually looks like a completely new person. There is not a single person on staff that can figure her (or this) out at this point. I think it gets back to what I noted previously. She will leave when she is ready. Over the past hour she has carried on somewhat of a conversation with three of us and actually ate a little ice cream. It is the first food she has managed since last Saturday morning. From my past as a hospital chaplain, this sort of rebound is not uncommon, but I think it is a bit different when she has been so far away for so long and the doctor and others expected she would not manage this beyond a couple of days. A bit a go I told her again that I loved her and she was amazing. Her response, with color in her azure blue eyes was simple, “No kidding?” She is now again asleep and that is how things go with her.
Earlier, Nate contacted me and he and his wife and two girls are on their way here. They are going to drive straight through and hope to be here by tomorrow afternoon. Knowing that I had to leave, he felt he could not leave her without one of the two of us here with her. I understood that and while I have been here 16-18 hours a day for the past week, it might be as my one colleague noted. That she does not want her loved ones around when she decides it is time to pass over. Earlier in the week, the times I had tears coming down my face were legion, but now I am simply ready for whatever comes. While I will still cry, I think the fact that I have had an opportunity to spend this time and we have noted how much we love each other, I have been given yet another example of the love and care she has. She did not want me to see her fade away; she did not want me to remember her looking sad and worn out. So today she is looking more like the Lydia I have always known: a smiling face, wide brilliant eyes, and a manner than demonstrated how incredibly enormous her heart is and how immeasurably she loves those for whom she cares. At this point, she is again sleeping and actually sleeping quite soundly. She does cough from time to time, but for the most part, her sleep is deep and undisturbed.
I am quite sure when I leave later today, she will be sleeping and I will not see her on this side again. It is about 6:30 on Friday evening, CST, and I have just cooked dinner for all the residents here at COH. I have done that from the time Lydia first came to reside here. The difference now is she was not following me around in the kitchen. She would get so upset that I would not sit with her soon enough. I remember one time I cooked and everyone raved about the dinner, except her. She said it was “so-so”. Lest I ever think of myself too highly, she would bring me back to earth. Earlier this afternoon as I told her again that I loved her, she looked at me and smiled and said, “No kidding?” It was both the accent and the look on her face that made the moment unforgettable. While she is against everything everyone said, still here, I do believe she is soon to pass over . . . . she told me today that she saw both George and her parents. She will look at one point and stare intently. When someone asked her if that was George she said, “no” and pointed to a different place in the room. It is apparent that those who love her are ready for her and hope to give her a sense of comfort as she begins this new journey. What I know as I get ready to leave and allow her to pass on her terms that I will miss her terrifically. I will miss her amazing smile and her intense and knowing eyes. I will miss her compassion for those less fortunate (especially her four-legged friends) and her willingness to give to those who needed help. I will miss her accent and those phrases that made her so endearing. I will miss and cherish the love she have given me. Earlier tonight as I knelt by her bed again, I cried and told her she was my parent and that I was thankful for everything she had done for me. She opened her eyes and looked at me and said, “I know.” Indeed she does, and so do I. I love you, Lydia, with all my heart and I hope your journey to that better place is wonderful. There is more I would like to say, but there are no words.
Thanks for reading.